The Philosophical Basis of Egalitarianism: Dignity and Equality

Thus far, this series has addressed what I have suggested is the basis of egalitarianism. In this article, I shall begin to connect the discussion to that ideology. In the previous article, I suggested that each of us has a reasonable expectation to certain treatment, in virtue of our personal autonomy and concomitant dignity. I need to state in a little more detail what this treatment might amount to.

Clearly, to treat someone with dignity is to take their interests into account in deciding what to do. More substantially, I think that dignity entails that some of our interests are non-negotiable; they could not be entered into a calculation in which they could be outweighed by anything else. This can be illustrated by reference to the idea of first-person reflection mentioned in the previous article. For instance, under no circumstances would we think it reasonable that we would be tortured or sacrificed, even if it was for the good of others. (Perhaps some of the more noble among us could imagine sacrificing ourselves for the sake of someone else, but this would be a sacrifice one chooses to make.)

What has been outlined thus far plausibly demands nothing from others but that they forebear from doing certain things. But the demands of dignity extend further than this. Persons have basic needs: for example, sustenance, shelter, and medical care when required. To live in a condition in which these needs are not met is for one’s autonomy to be stunted. If it is accepted that we have a standing moral obligation to ensure that others have these basic needs, this requires not just non-interference from us, but actual help.

I have not said much about these basic needs, but we can take it that they are absolute rather than relative. That is, they concern whether or not one has any of a particular kind of resource, as opposed to how much of that resource one has relative to what others in the same society possess. But I think that dignity makes a last demand on us, which goes further again. To treat others as equal to oneself (which is what I suggested treating them with dignity amounts to) requires one to accept that inequalities of wealth and resources are not themselves morally neutral. They can be justified, certainly, but there are some situations which are wrong simply in virtue of these inequalities. This, in effect, is to recognise that equality of a substantive sort has value in and of itself.

One way to show that inequalities of wealth are not themselves morally neutral is to consider cases of injustice which plausibly have no explanation other than such inequalities. Consider the following situation: an employer pays both men and women to do a particular job. All of the female employees are paid less than males for doing the same work. Assume further that the female employees have on average the same level of education, training and experience as their male counterparts. Assume, finally, that none of the female workers are living in penury, and each of them had freely and knowingly entered into this arrangement with the employer.

If this arrangement is unjust, as most of us would accept it is, the question is what makes it so? It is not a matter of sheer poverty, nor of exploitation in the sense of the employees being forced to accept conditions against their will. It is hard to avoid thinking that the injustice here is a matter of a certain sort of inequality. Whatever other differences between workers might justify them receiving different pay, mere gender isn’t one of them. This suggests that in certain circumstances, when other moral factors such as liberty or dire need are not relevant, inequality can be objectionable in itself. Note that to prevent this sort of case from occurring, one would have to limit the liberty both of the employer and of all employees, male and female alike, to enter into contracts which pay workers different wages according to their gender.

This kind of case brings the discussion much closer to contemporary political discussion. In the last piece in this series, I shall offer some suggestions as to how the idea of egalitarianism can help shape our understanding of political issues.

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